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September 02, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, September 02, 2005

The End The End (September 02, 2005)

Kepler's abruptly shuts down after 50 years as Midpeninsula's cultural hub

by Bill D'Agostino

It's not every shop that prompts customers to place a dozen white roses on its doorstep when it closes.

But Kepler's Books and Magazines was not just any store.

Kepler's, the 50-year-old counterculture icon and one of the last independent bookstores on the peninsula, closed abruptly Wednesday morning, stunning employees, loyal customers and the California bookselling community.

"Kepler's leaves a huge hole in the literary scene in the South Bay -- there's no question," said Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

Like others familiar with Kepler's, Landon was shocked and perplexed by the sudden news. He noted that other independent bookstores in the area are currently thriving. "It isn't the state of the business," he said.

There had been no outward indications that Kepler's, located on El Camino Real in Menlo Park, was in serious trouble, Landon said. "They were running their business as if all was normal."

Owner Clark Kepler did not return phone calls or respond to other requests for comment. A sign on the door Wednesday morning, signed by Kepler himself, blamed the continued downturn in the local economy that began in 2001. Long-time employees also faulted the building's high rent and increased competition from Borders, Costco and online booksellers as factors in the sudden closure.

"They ran out of money," Assistant Manager Andy Battle explained. The longhaired, goateed employee also cited an overall decline in reading in America, and noted that shoppers had become less adventuresome when searching for new books.

"This is symptomatic of a nationwide trend," Battle said, waving his arms.

Faith Bell, owner of the 70-year-old Bell's Books in Palo Alto, asked: "If Kepler's can't make it, how can anybody?"

Locals need to see the connection between Kepler's closure and their choice to buy books online or at a discount store, Bell added. "This is what happens when you shop at Amazon."

Gerry Masteller, former co-owner of Printer's Inc. bookstore in Palo Alto, said he was "devastated" by the news of Kepler's demise, since he had worked there for 10 years before helping start the Palo Alto store in 1978.

Printer's Inc. closed in 2001. "Kepler's lasted four more years," Masteller said. "How embarrassing it is for a fine academic community that it can't support an independent bookstore."

City of Menlo Park officials had known for months Kepler's was struggling with a high monthly rent. They tried to help broker a deal between the bookstore and its landlord, The Tan Group, according to an e-mail from David Johnson -- the city' business development officer -- to City Council members.

"No relief was granted," Johnson noted.

A receptionist with The Tan Group, a property management company located in Palo Alto, said the owners did not wish to answer questions.

Kepler's held its 50th anniversary in May. Banners announcing the celebration still hung inside and outside the store on Wednesday, as did announcements of upcoming talks and meetings, which are now cancelled.

Its Web site was replaced in the late afternoon by a farewell note from Kepler: "In today's political and social climate I would like to be there with you and for you, providing books and writers with varied ideas and provocative opinions, but the constancy of change will not allow it."

"It's like a relative in the family dying," lamented Roy Borrone, owner of Cafe Borrone's, located immediately adjacent to Kepler's. "This is such a sad day."

The closure would definitely affect his business, Borrone said. "We had a great symbiotic relationship."

In 1989, the café relocated from Redwood City to be situated next door to Kepler's, which was moving across El Camino Real. When they both reopened, there was also a studio and a florist in the same building. Now only Borrone remains.

"It's an era that could be ending," Borrone said. "It's the rents that make it so darn hard."

In retrospect, there were a few signs the bookstore was in trouble. Employees' hours were curtailed last fall. A rare storewide sale was held this past weekend. City officials said the store recently cancelled an Alan Alda speech scheduled for the Menlo Park City Council chambers on Sept. 25 without explanation.

Most of the store's 40 employees learned the news during a brief staff meeting Wednesday morning at 9 a.m.

"This is it," Clark Kepler said during an emotional but brief speech where he explained that he had poured his own money into the store but had become insolvent.

"He had a difficult time saying what he had to say," said four-year employee Cynthia St. John, who was on the verge of tears as she recalled the speech a few minutes later. "He's a little guy with a big heart."

Employees said they were given their final paychecks, which included small bonuses, and told to cash them immediately. One employee said Kepler plans to file for bankruptcy protection.

More than a dozen employees lingered afterward at a table outside Café Borrone, consoling each other, discussing the closure and reminiscing. Many said they planned to continue working for bookstores, if they could, because they loved helping people find new favorite books.

St. John, a buyer, said working for Kepler's was the best four years of her life. She "rubbed shoulders with giants," she said, including literally rubbing Al Franken's shoulders.

"Kepler's was a book store. Other places are retail stores that happen to sell books," fellow former employee Chelsea McNeel said. "It was really nice to work here. It was special."

Assistant Manager Antonia Kehr recalled that one little girl and her mother visited the store every week after church.

"They're going to come this Sunday," Kehr said, "and we won't be here."

Roy Kepler, Clark Kepler's father, founded the store in 1955 as a haven for anti-war pacifists and other progressive free thinkers. Along with Cody's in Berkeley and City Lights in San Francisco, Kepler's was one of the first three shops in the Bay Area that sold quality paperbacks, making literature more accessible.

Rolling Stone magazine reported last month that Kepler's played a key role in the formation of the Grateful Dead. The story said the bookstore "was a modest shop run by a lefty activist, Roy Kepler, and co-managed by a local pacifist guru, Ira Sandperl.

"It had an open area with tables and a coffee urn on the left, as you walked in, which was the hub of the literary-music axis that gave the Palo Alto scene much of its gravitas and cachet."

Among the authors who spoke at Kepler's in recent years: Gloria Steinem, Michael Chabon, Jane Fonda, former first lady Barbara Bush, Madeleine Albright, Jimmy Carter and Arianna Huffington.

When Barry Eisler moved to Menlo Park in 1994, he was working on the manuscript for his first book, "Rain Fall," and would visit Kepler's often.

"I used to dream about my seeing myself on one of those author event posters," he said. When that happened after the book was published, "It really felt like it was a dream come true."

Eisler launched each of his four books at Kepler's with a book signing. "I'm going to miss that tradition," he said.

The author called Kepler's "a community," and said the staff knew the customers, either by name or by face.

"It's not an anonymous experience," Eisler said. "You feel like you're entering a world of book enthusiasts, people who know books, who love book and want to share their passion for books with you."

Shoppers conglomerated around the store all day Wednesday, their mouths gaping, their heads shaking as they spotted the modest white sign on the door announcing the bookstore's end. A few gasped in shock.

A few loyal customers said they wanted to contact Kepler to try to find a way to try to keep the store open. Many were disappointed they had no warning.

By the end of the afternoon, someone had placed sunflowers in the front door's handles.

Bob "Buzz" Holmes had shopped at Kepler's during its entire lifespan. Since retiring four-and-a-half years ago, he had picked up his morning newspaper there every day.

"This will be a real blow," Holmes said.

Elly Moses, a nanny, was one of the first to jostle the locked door and peer into the darkened windows. She accompanied three devastated-looking, freckled-faced youngsters who could only shrug and frown when asked about their feelings.

"I never thought they would go out of business," Moses said.

A complete history of Kepler's can be viewed at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak contributed to this report. Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com.


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